Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 24, 2005

The Rider Named Death

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:38 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 24, 2005

“The Rider Named Death” is based on “Pale Horse,” the memoir of Boris Savinkov, a member of the terrorist wing of the Russian Social Revolutionary Party (S.R.). Despite the party’s name, the S.R.’s were hostile to Marxism and proletarian revolution. As is often the case, ultraleftism and reformism went hand in hand with the S.R.’s. Despite their extremist origins, S.R. leader Alexander Kerensky attempted to rule Russia as a conventional capitalist politician in 1917.

No doubt acknowledging Savinkov’s martial skills, Kerensky put him in charge of the War Ministry and also made him military governor of Petrograd. His political differences with Kerensky led Savinkov to resign from his government posts in 1917. He was expelled from the party that year as well. Following the path of many S.R.’s, Savinkov joined the White Army with the goal of establishing a military dictatorship. The terrorist skills that he once used against Czarist officials were now used against the Soviet’s. While in Soviet custody in 1925, he committed suicide by jumping out a window in Cheka headquarters, an act depicted in the final scene of the movie.

Boris Savinkov becomes “Georges” (Andrei Panin) in Karen Shakhnazarov’s thinly fictionalized film version of Savinkov’s memoir. (Despite his first name, Shakhnazarov is a male.) The film focuses on a series of terrorist acts carried out by Savinkov/Georges’s circle in 1906. The conspirators include: Vanya (Artem Semakin), a cherubic-faced youth who seems more driven by Christian idealism than the class struggle; Fydor (Rostislav Bershauer), an illiterate peasant who is consumed with rage against the aristocracy; and Erna (Ksenia Rappoport), a bomb-maker who is in love with Georges.

“The Rider Named Death” is not very concerned with historical background or social analysis. It is a moral and psychological study very much in the vein of Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed.” Georges openly admits to his co-conspirators that he kills out of boredom rather than to further the goals of his party. In a pivotal scene, he recounts a tale once told to him by a Belgian officer stationed in the Congo. Across the river, there are “black savages” who he shoots at for sport. Furthermore, if the natives capture one of the Belgian soldiers, they will cut off his head–presumably out of the same spirit of boredom. It is difficult to figure out whether Shakhnazarov exaggerates the apolitical character of Savinkov/Georges’s terrorism, or whether this is an accurate portrayal.

Whatever the case, it is certainly safe to assume that Savinkov was habituated to “propaganda of the deed.” The final third of the film is consumed with his circle’s plot to assassinate Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich in 1906, despite the instructions of the S.R. central committee to put an end to terror. It has decided that it would be more productive to push for constitutional reform. The film’s inability to put the year 1906 in any kind of historical context is symptomatic of its overall failure to provide a fully developed analysis of S.R. terrorism. Only one year earlier, Russia underwent what amounted to a dress rehearsal for 1917. Millions of Russians took to the streets in a struggle to overthrow Czarism. Under such conditions, any efforts to act above their heads as self-appointed executioners of hated Czarist officials would be highly suspect. If anything, it would make Savinkov’s vendetta against the Duke appear even more perverse–but, conversely, more credible since it would illustrate his contempt for mass action.

By choosing to dramatize the life of such a repellent character, Shakhnazarov runs the risk of all such enterprises. When you make a film about a singularly unattractive character, the audience has to make an effort to care whether he lives or dies. In the final scene, when Georges hurls himself out the Cheka window, you are relieved that this tawdry tale is finished. To Shakhnazarov’s credit, he makes the film entertaining despite it being based on such an unsavory character. His attention to period detail is meticulous and his reconstruction of bomb-making and bomb-throwing is an achievement in itself. This is a film that nearly compensates for character underdevelopment through sheer technical prowess. Andrei Panin’s depiction of Georges is flawless, no matter the problems with the portrayed character. With a striking resemblance to Jon Voight, he assumes a reptilian scowl through most of the film that also bears a striking resemblance to Voight’s own villain performances.

The interesting question is what made Shakhnazarov choose this material for the basis of a film. In an interview with the Moscow Times, he reveals that it was Savinkov as existential type that interested him, not the question of terror per se:

“Of course terror is a highly pressing, topical subject. Yet it was not the subject itself but the hero that attracted me. Savinkov’s is an extremely credible, true-to-life hero. It’s been a long time since I saw any such types, including in the cinema. Yes, he is a terrorist and killer, but he is a person in mental agony, a person torn asunder by conflict within. Incidentally, he might even not have gone in for terror but been, say, just a military officer. This makes no difference. It is simply that this kind of character pushes the level of debate several notches higher. It’s irritating that in the present-day world the level of public debate on any subject keeps slipping, getting trivialized all the time. Global problems – life, death, the meaning of life – seem to be on their way out. Yet they are so vital you can’t pretend they don’t exist.”

In a follow-up question, the Moscow Times asks if Georges is a Raskolnikov of the 20th century, an unrepentant killer. Shakhnazarov’s answer is highly revealing insofar as it points to the limited perspectives of the contemporary Russian intelligentsia:

“The point is not whether he is repentant or not. He is affected by a conflict that came with the 20th century. After all, what was the late 19th century? On the one hand, there was Dostoyevsky, but on the other, there was Nietzsche. Two poles. Dostoyevsky said: If there is no God, anything goes. And Nietzsche discarded morality. Georges, just like any person of the early 20th century, was affected by these two conflicting trends. And they smashed him to pieces.”

How odd that Karl Marx was not considered important enough to mention. Or maybe not so odd, considering the way in which a debased Marxism became the official religion of the USSR. From the Marxist perspective, S.R. terrorism was not so much a question of morality but one of effectiveness. Revolutionaries forsook terror, not because they went through some kind of conversion but because they thought it was an obstacle to making a revolution. One such Marxist who went through a political evolution was Lenin himself. He rejected terrorism not long after his brother was hung for plotting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.

Although Azef (Vasiliy Zotov) is a minor character in the film, he probably occupies as important a place in Russian history as Savinkov. He is Georges’s “handler,” who transmits messages from the central committee. In 1909, it was revealed that Azef was a police agent. This led Leon Trotsky to write “The Bankruptcy of Individual Terrorism,” an article that in all likelihood has never been read by Karen Shakhnazarov, let alone registered on his radar screen.

From “The Bankruptcy of Individual Terrorism”:

For terrorists, in the entire field of politics there exist only two central focuses: the government and the Combat Organisation. “The government is ready to temporarily reconcile itself to the existence of all other currents,” Gershuni (a founder of the Combat Organisation of the SRs) wrote to his comrades at a time when he was facing the death sentence, “but it has decided to direct all its blows towards crushing the Social Revolutionary Party.”

“I sincerely trust,” said Kalayev (another SR terrorist) writing at a similar moment, “that our generation, headed by the Combat Organisation, will do away with the autocracy.”

Everything that is outside the framework of terror is only the setting for the struggle; at best, an auxiliary means. In the blinding flash of exploding bombs, the contours of political parties and the dividing lines of the class struggle disappear without a trace.

And we hear the voice of that greatest of romantics and the best practitioner of the new terrorism, Gershuni, urging his comrades to “avoid a break with not only the ranks of the revolutionaries, but even a break with the opposition parties in general.” The logic of terrorism

“Not instead of the masses, but together with them.” However, terrorism is too “absolute” a form of struggle to be content with a limited and subordinate role in the party.

Engendered by the absence of a revolutionary class, regenerated later by a lack of confidence in the revolutionary masses, terrorism can maintain itself only by exploiting the weakness and disorganisation of the masses, minimising their conquests, and exaggerating their defeats.

“They see that it is impossible, given the nature of modern armaments, for the popular masses to use pitchforks and cudgels – those age-old weapons of the people – to destroy the Bastilles of modern times,” defence attorney Zhdanov said of the terrorists during the trial of Kalyaev.

“After January 9 (the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre, which marked the start of the 1905 revolution), they saw very well what was involved; and they answered the machine gun and rapid-firing rifle with the revolver and the bomb; such are the barricades of the twentieth century. ”

The revolvers of individual heroes instead of the people’s cudgels and pitchforks; bombs instead of barricades ­ that is the real formula of terrorism.

full: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/Trotsky/againstterrorframe.htm

(The Rider Named Death is scheduled to open in NYC in late March. Recommended only to those with an interest in Russian history.)

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